More than mittens, more than a muffler, it’s a bright-Granny-Smith-green bed of arugula that gets me through the winter. With a suave texture and a great peppery bite — like mustard’s, but without the earthy, cabbage flavor of turnip greens and kale — arugula is the princess of brassicas. Arugula sown between late September and early November can be harvested until the first prolonged freeze. For a reliable stream of winter arugula, it needs the protection of a cold frame or greenhouse, but it more than earns a berth in such cushy surroundings, because it tastes like spring.
Arugula can be used in cooking, I suppose. Pesto sauce in which arugula substitutes for basil has its fans, but I always miss that basil flavor. I have been known to tuck arugula into omelets at the last minute, just because the sight of its color takes the chill off a winter morning. But generally, heat tames the flavor too much for my taste. Those who, on the other hand, find its bite too extreme might wilt it slightly with a warm dressing, or mix it with other soft greens. But what soft greens? Butterhead lettuces at this time of year tend to be imported from distant fields, or are blandly hydroponic.
My solution is to use arugula as a bed for everything. Instead of making tossed salads, I make composed ones, in which arugula is spread on a plate and more solid ingredients are set on top. These might be beets from the root cellar, baked until soft and caramelized, then peeled, sliced and bathed in a slightly sweet balsamic dressing. Maybe the delectable little clementines that are at their best in this season. Or one of those huge fat avocados, the kind with the smooth, bright-green skin. Recently I created a salad of all three on arugula, and it was a meal from which nothing seemed left out.
Put cheese on arugula, any cheese. A pork chop and sauteed apple slices. Lightly broiled salmon. A scoop of chicken salad mixed with seedless grapes. Soft-boiled eggs. See what’s in the fridge: scallions, celery hearts, pine nuts and strong black olives? Mix them with leftover cooked rice, olive oil and lemon, then set on a platter of arugula.
What’s on the counter? Ripened pears? Perfect — especially with cheese. What’s in the freezer? Shrimp? Thaw them and drop them into hot olive oil along with garlic and red pepper flakes, then sprinkle over arugula. No carbs, just protein and a lot of primal satisfaction.
If sowing arugula in a cold frame wasn’t on your fall to-do list this past year, it could be in the year to come. Or you could wait until the ground thaws for good and scatter a packet of arugula seed on any patch of already-prepared ground. Just broadcast it and wait for lengthening days and warming temps to do their work. Eat the thinnings while you’re waiting for platters-full to grow. Sow regularly to make the most of spring weather, before summer heat makes arugula fit only for flea beetles, and when there are plenty other shades of tasty green.
Damrosch’s new book, ”The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook,” will be published in March.